The hijab is not a symbol of gender oppression – but those who choose to wear it risk Islamophobia
In a recent New York Times podcast about the alleged “Trojan horse” Islamization of schools in Birmingham, England, a Muslim woman who worked at one of the schools under discussion recounts what happened when she started wearing the hijab. She had just married and her non-Muslim colleagues interpreted her headgear as a sign that her new husband was controlling her, that she was oppressed.
In fact, as she explains to the podcast hosts, she hadn’t worn the hijab before because she was afraid of exactly that: people’s biased reactions. She only started covering up when she felt more confident that school was a safe place where she could be herself without fear of Islamophobic repercussions.
Wearing a head covering is the most visible symbol of Islam in the West – and the most misunderstood. The ways Muslim women cover themselves are diverse, ranging from the face veil or niqab, to covering their hair and upper body with the headscarf or hijab. And like Muslim women themselves, they come in a wide variety of colors, styles and fashions and are shaped by place, time and trends.
Some people equated the coverage with gender inequality and viewed it as a threat to social cohesion or, worse, as synonymous with Islamist extremism. Although there are women who are pressured to cover up by law or society, assuming that this applies to all who do so fuels these stereotypes, fostering a climate of racism and Islamophobia that Muslim women , in the UK and around the world, bear the brunt.
Those who choose to cover must navigate both these prejudicial opinions and the legislation, systematic media scrutiny and political debate they engender – often without being included – in their daily lives.
But what these assumptions fail to recognize are the multiple meanings that coverage holds for the women who choose to do so. Research shows that for many who wear it, the veil is not a passive garment. On the contrary, it is very often an important and integral part of women’s identity, an expression of personal choice.
Wearing a headscarf can be liberating
When deciding to cover, the way a woman negotiates both personal choice and fear of gender-based Islamophobia isn’t always straightforward. For some women, our research shows, covering up is empowering.
We conducted a number of individual interviews and focus groups with Muslim women who wear the niqab in the UK. One person, Jasmine, told us:
The sisters are obliged to wear it in certain places in the world. I won’t deny it. That’s wrong. But I choose when to wear it and when to take it off. I choose the colors to wear, not just black and white.
Another, Khadija, said:
It’s awesome ! It is a beautiful religious fashion statement. I have drawers filled with a variety of vibrant colors, materials and prints. I combine them with my outfits and wear a different style every day.
For these women, choosing to cover up was a way of showing assertiveness and agency, of controlling their bodies. In other words, the exact opposite of passive, oppressed victimhood painted by stereotypical views.
Hedging can also be complicated
For other women, it can be a more nuanced experience. A French politician told us how she sought culturally discreet means of coverage, to avoid being stereotyped as a Muslim woman or dealing with the sexist Islamophobia that often accompanies it. She says she finds ways to deal with it.
I don’t wear a scarf. I cover my hair with something, with a hat, with a beret, something culturally French.
Fashion designer and blogger Hana Tajima spoke eloquently on social media about the challenges. In a recent article, she recounted how, on the one hand, there are people who don’t understand why anyone would want to cover up in the first place: “They see the headscarf as a way to control and manipulate women .” And on the other hand, she says, “there are people who think that once you choose to wear the headscarf, you have a responsibility to maintain it.”
She described the pressure of being expected to be the perfect embodiment of someone else’s idea of faith. With regard to women more broadly, the presumed significance and significance of their attire is often externally prescribed by society. Yet wearing the headscarf can be a deeply personal choice and a personal expression of faith.
Research shows that the experiences of Muslim women who wear blankets in the West are part of a larger, intersecting pattern of prejudice, misogyny and racism. Muslim women who cover themselves are stigmatized as threatening, their headscarves or veils being the visual embodiment of what makes Muslims ‘other’.
Ultimately, our research shows that Muslim women visibly face a disproportionate impact from Islamophobia. This ranges from denial of services to physical assault in public, including the removal of headscarves against their will in the street.
Visible Muslimness correlates with direct experience of Islamophobia. However, we found that Islamophobia also affects people who are non-Muslim, simply because their physical appearance, skin color and even, as research suggests, their names, means that they are seen as ” looking like Muslims. Such anti-Muslim racism leads to further discrimination against people trying to obtain housing or access education.